Checking Out Kids in the Fast Lane

NEW YORK — Quantifying the X Games’ impact at retail can be as challenging as a wakeboarder’s tootsie roll, but stores agree that the hype around ESPN’s action sports competition is buoying back-to-school business....

NEW YORK — Quantifying the X Games’ impact at retail can be as challenging as a wakeboarder’s tootsie roll, but stores agree that the hype around ESPN’s action sports competition is buoying back-to-school business.

This story first appeared in the August 29, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Skateboarders, inline skaters, wakeboarders and BMX and Moto X riders were among the adrenaline seekers who descended on Philadelphia earlier this month for the nine-day event. Less agile types have been catching the action on their TVs and, in some cases, buying T-shirts and sweatshirts with bold graphics to parrot their favorite athletes’ looks.

The Gravity Games, a knockoff of the X Games held in Cleveland this summer, has also broadened the mainstream appeal of action sports.

Activewear makers and retailers that, unlike Adidas, can’t pony up the cash to be a title sponsor at the X Games are using the venue to scout trends. ESPN even posted an online gallery of style-conscious women in the Philadelphia crowd at its Web site and asked visitors to grade the photos.

“The X Games are the best place to get exposure as an athlete or a brand. The kids always want to know who you ride for. They look at you from head to toe,” said snowboarder and skateboarder Cara-Beth Burnside. “Everyone plays that stuff over and over.”

The event also helps attract new participants, said Burnside, a Vans-sponsored athlete. For the first time, ESPN hosted an all-girls skateboard demo at the event.

Vans, a California brand long devoted to action sports, has seen an upswing in sales of skateboard and surfing-inspired clothes like knit shirts, T-shirts, board shorts, beanies and sweatshirts this fall. But this is a typically busy time for the company, and its fall commercials are airing, a company spokeswoman said.

The brand’s Triple Crown Series, a national action sports event, should attract more than 400,000 people this year. Highlighting the participants in action sports, the Vans spokesman said the number of skateboarders in the U.S. has shot up to 12 million.

“There is genuine interest among younger kids, and we’re getting to the point where a lot of their parents grew up skateboarding and snowboarding,” he said.

Galyan’s Trading Co. is also seeing interest in skateboard-inspired looks. But it’s tough to tell if the popularity stems from the X Games, a company spokeswoman said. What is certain is that teens and tweens are buying plenty of T-shirts and hoodies from DC Shoes, Element, Fox and Hurley, looks first favored by skateboarders.

“Overall, our back-to-school sales are a little slower than last year, but this age group is doing fine,” the Galyan’s spokeswoman said.

Skateboard shops will be featured in the retailer’s new stores in Arlington, Tex., and Colorado Springs, Col., which both open Friday. Galyan’s has catered to alternative sports fans for years, and sponsors X Games speed climber Tori Allen. The 14-year-old started climbing on a Galyan’s indoor climbing wall in its Indianapolis store. She periodically scales the walls in the chain’s stores, and stops by to sign autographs.

At Tommy’s Slalom Shop in Denver, wakeboarding, a sport that first gained major airtime at the X Games, is catching on with women. Peggy Stelmachowicz, general manager, said women are buying rash guards from O’Neil. The fact that the company does not make hard goods enhances its appeal with wakeboarders. Most hard-core riders favor one brand for equipment and are not about to wear apparel that is made by a company that also makes wakeboards, she said. Recreational wakeboarders, however, tend to be more willing to mix labels.

Wakeboarding apparel trends generally start in Florida, where the sport is a year-round activity and many professional wakeboarders and coaches spend part of the year. Tommy’s Slalom Shop keeps a close eye on what’s selling in its Lantana, Fla., store.

Scott Viands, owner of PACT, a skateboard shop in Philadelphia, said he saw more of an uptick in sales during last year’s X Games. He also noted that East Coast teens remain more influenced by team sports like basketball than action sports. In addition, there has been a backlash to the X Games among skateboarders.

“The majority of skateboarding isn’t what the X Games represents. It’s gone more mainstream with people like Tony Hawk,” Viands said. “Skateboarding is not about contests.”

X Games fans are more inclined to buy a brand they saw on their favorite athletes, said Symon Cousens, owner of Elemental, a skateboard and snowboard shop in Newport, R.I. But this summer’s sales among teenage girls are sparked more by surfing than alternative sports, he said.

Elemental, a surf and skateboard shop in Newport, R.I., is selling more women’s rash guards from O’Neil, as well as from Billabong and Ripcurl. Owner Symon Cousens said the majority of the surfer girls in his store are between the ages of 10 and 16. Offering surf camp on weekday mornings at a nearby beach has helped Elemental attract as many girl surfers as guys, Cousens said. This month’s release of “Blue Crush” has only furthered the interest in surfing.